Darkness Sure Becomes This City
Signature Sounds
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Remember when band names used to be named after animals? These days they’re just as likely to be named after moods and attitudes. The latest musical act to do so is the Americana/bluegrass ensemble Joy Kills Sorrow. The very name suggests introspection, a promise delivered. It also suggests an upbeat approach, but that’s not always the case.

The good news is that Joy Kills Sorrow is more complex musically than your average bluegrass band. Guitarist Matthew Acara, banjoist player Wesley Corbett, and mandolin player Jacob Jolliff can break out and pick with the best of them, but what they prefer to do is whip up an aural mix for bass player Bridget Kearney’s songs and Emma Beaton’s vocals. Beaton is a marvel to hear—a full-throated singer who can air it out when she needs to and grovel in the gravel when she wants to.

The group name, I’m told, is an homage to radio station WJKS, which broadcast the Monroe Brothers in the 1930s. There are certainly elements of Bill Monroe shining through on this album, especially his penchant for emphasizing the blues part of bluegrass. Beaton is especially sharp in inserting a brief catch in her voice to suggest pain and sorrow. But this leads me to an aspect of Joy Kill Sorrow’s music that some listeners may find problematic. The music is often complex, as befits what we might expect from Jolliff’s Berklee School of Music background and Kearney’s accolades as a John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner, but sometimes it’s simply just not as much fun as old-style bluegrass. The first two tracks often feel more intellectual than musical and it’s not until track three, the swingy “New Shoes,” that the band lets down its guard and lets us have some fun. In fact, some of the best tracks are the simplest. The quieter instrumentation of songs such as “Thinking of You and Such” and “If It’s Rainin’” allows Beaton to warble tunes that would be at home in Alison Krauss’s repertoire. In like fashion, “We Will Have Our Day” evokes minimalist Appalachian hollow blues, while “You Make Me Feel Drunk” is a torchy scorcher. (Check out the banjo and mando solos in that one!)

This is a promising national debut from a young band in the mold of Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, and Railroad Earth. The quintet might want to adjust the joy versus sorrow ratio a bit, but I like where things are headed.

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